Authors: Alex Gerlis
He was sobbing now, the tears streaking down the pale face with bad skin. The Dutchman was used to seeing men fight for their life. It was his job to reduce them to this state. You break them down until they are more compliant than a baby. Then you can do what you want with them. No matter how many times he had seen it happen, it was no less edifying.
For the first time that morning, if it was morning, he stood up and walked round the table and towards the Belgian. His disposition was now friendly. He put one arm on his shoulder and spoke quietly to him in Flemish.
‘What’s his name, Arnold? The agent. What is he called?’
‘I don’t know the word in English ...
... it’s a bird …’ Vermeulen was speaking between loud sobs, struggling to catch his breath as he did so. He was desperate to finish the sentence, as if his life depended upon it.
‘Magpie,’ said the Dutchman. ‘
means magpie in French.’
‘One for sorrow.’ It was the Englishman, speaking out loud for the first time.
‘ ... and he’s not a man. It’s a woman.’ The Belgian’s voice had an eager tone to it now. He wanted to show he was doing all he could to help.
After that, the Belgian who had been so taciturn over the past week barely stopped talking for the next two days.
Late in the afternoon of Thursday, 1 May, five men gathered in a sun-filled room in a large house just behind Ham Common in south west London. The first hint of summer hung in the air and under a cloudless sky the day remained warm. The windows were firmly shut and barred as they always were, meaning that silence prevailed as the men entered a room that was far larger than needed, but it was the most secure room in a very secure building.
The Dutchman and the Englishman sat side by side, as three other men followed them into the room and arranged themselves opposite them.
A noticeably large man sank into the chair opposite the Dutchman and the Englishman, with the other two men flanking him. As with many men of his build, he moved in a careful and surprisingly dainty manner. He spoke first, addressing the man to his left.
‘Jean-Louis, can I introduce Colonel Visser and Captain Edgar to you? Colonel Visser has spent most his career with your own Deuxième Bureau and also his own native Dutch Intelligence. He is now our chief interrogator at the London Reception Centre up in Clapham which I told you about the other day. He is our best source of new recruits. Captain Edgar is one of my top case officers here in MI5. Colonel Visser, Captain Edgar, Jean-Louis is here to represent the interests of the French Government in exile.’ He nodded at the Dutchman and the Englishman in turn as he rearranged the notebook on his lap.
‘Another success, I take it?’
Both men began to speak at the same time. With a generous gesture of his arm, the Dutchman allowed Captain Edgar to continue.
‘Indeed, sir. Another triumph for Colonel Visser if I might say. Quite masterful. The Belgian was a miserable wretch but he held out on us for far longer than anyone could have expected. That damned policeman in Oxford. We were quite possibly yards and even minutes away from catching Vermeulen red-handed with the transmitter. Then Vermeulen goes and throws up in the street, policeman arrests Vermeulen and the whole operation is up the spout. Without the bloody transmitter, if you’ll excuse my language, we have nothing on Vermeulen. Tricky job we had on our hands.’
‘You see, Professor Newby,’ Colonel Visser was speaking now, cutting across Captain Edgar and directly addressing the large man in front of them, ‘he had been well trained. To a point. They always are well trained; the Germans know what they are doing. But what matters is where that point is. Vermeulen knew that we had no evidence on him and his confidence increased as the interrogation went on — and not without reason. Without the transmitter we had a Belgian national who had been living openly in this country for just under a year and who had no contact with the enemy in that time. All of his possessions had been checked when he entered this country and they had been cleared then. He had no reason to suspect that we had anything on him now. He had enough wit about him to do as they had told him to do. I come across it all of the time.
Stick to your story. If they have anything against you, you will know soon enough.
You can almost see their lips moving as they repeat that to themselves.’
The Dutchman cleared his throat. He desperately wanted a cigarette but he had been warned of the professor’s aversion to them.
‘They even used a classic Abwehr technique by deliberately building a flaw into his story. The idea is that we think we have spotted something against him, but he is prepared for that and eventually owns up to it and then it appears not to be so important. In his case, it was pretending to be a lawyer. We made him admit that he was just a clerk. He claims that this was his opportunity to be somebody, that no harm was intended and we are then meant to think that maybe he is not really a spy after all, just a fool.’
The Dutchman could feel the packet of Players Navy Cut getting heavier in his shirt pocket.
‘So, a week into the interrogation he must have felt confident. And as he felt more confident, the more anxious I became. I was certain that he must have brought something incriminating with him into England. The transmitter would have come separately in a parachute drop or by some other route and then cached for him, but he would have carried some kind of codebook in with him. It was impossible that he could be so clean. Our information from Brussels was so good that we knew he was an agent. So I went through all of his possessions myself. Every night after the interrogations, I went through everything, even though my men had already searched everything twice over. The bible was the last item I looked at. It was clever. The pinpricks did not begin until halfway into Exodus and I believe that I only spotted the first one because I still had my desk lamp on as the sun rose through the window and that combination of light somehow picked out the marks. Divine providence.’
That reference did not appear to be appreciated by the professor of theology sat opposite him.
‘There we have it. We confronted him with this evidence and then it really was just a matter of time.’
‘Will he work for us then?’
‘Oh yes indeed, Professor.’ Captain Edgar was speaking now. His tall frame leaning forward in the low chair, edging him closer to the other three and placing him in front of Colonel Visser.
‘Colonel Visser’s description of a judicial execution was masterful. It certainly did the trick. I thought Vermeulen was going to pass out there and then. Good job the chap doesn’t have a weak heart.’
Professor Newby continued looking at Captain Edgar for some time after he had finished. He turned to the Frenchman on his left.
‘Jean-Louis. We are called the “twenty committee” because of the two Roman numerals, XX. They represent the words double cross, hence the two XXs, which also signify twenty in Latin as I am sure you are aware.
. Our role in the Double Cross Committee or “twenty committee” as you may sometimes hear it referred to, is to identify German spies whom we can turn into double agents. Colonel Visser is our best source of new recruits. In other words, find them and then persuade them to work for us. So what I need to know from Colonel Visser and Captain Edgar is whether we can turn Arnold Vermeulen.’
Captain Edgar spoke first. ‘You can turn Arnold Vermeulen in any direction you want, Professor. Left, right, upside down, inside out. You name it. He’s yours to do what you want with.’
‘Do you share this assessment, Colonel Visser?’
There was a hesitation from the Dutchman, who was weighing his words in marked contrast to Captain Edgar’s enthusiasm. ‘Indeed, Professor. But I would have a significant concern.’
‘Which is that in himself, Vermeulen is only of secondary interest. There is very little that we can get directly from him. He has not been involved in any espionage since his arrival in this country. His only real interest to us is as a way of getting to the primary agent, whom he refers to by the code name Magpie. We must do nothing that would jeopardise our chances of getting hold of her. To do that, we have to handle Vermeulen very carefully.’
‘What kind of a chap is he?’
‘He is, as Captain Edgar says and as is all too obvious to any observer, a weak and pathetic individual. He is a loner. A small man, consumed and possibly motivated by resentment and envy and prejudice. He saw the German conquest of Belgium as an ideal opportunity to be someone for perhaps the first time in his life. However, we must not make the mistake of underestimating him. This man is not a complete fool, as much as we would like to think so. He has his strengths. Apart from his fluency in English and his ability with radios, he has a certain stubbornness, he has a commitment.’
‘By which you mean what, Colonel?’ This was the man to the Professor’s right, who up to this point had been busy taking notes.
‘Despite what we think of him, he still volunteered to help the Germans. Maybe he did not envisage risking his life as a spy in this country, but he was still motivated by some kind of an ideological commitment to the Nazi cause. We have to trust him if we are to get our entré to Magpie. She is our real target. And I am not sure how far we can trust Arnold Vermeulen.’
Colonel Visser gestured towards Captain Edgar on his right. ‘We have done well to obtain a confession from Vermeulen. But without Magpie, it will mean nothing.’
‘What do we know about Magpie?’ This was the Frenchman to the left of the professor.
‘We know Magpie is important,’ said Edgar. ‘We know she is a woman and that she is French. Other than that, we know nothing. Nothing.’
‘Narrows it down somewhat,’ said the professor. The others smiled briefly. There was a long silence. The sun had dropped now, but the room was still too warm and perfectly quiet. Professor Newby was the first to speak.
‘Correct me if I am wrong, Jean-Louis, but was there not a mass exodus of population after the Germans conquered France?’
Jean-Louis spoke in a resigned manner, lowering his head, which less kind observers than those in the room may have imagined was in shame. ‘The population of France is forty million. We estimate that up to a quarter of the population left their homes around the time of the German invasion. The population of Paris was three million before the Germans marched in on 14 June. Less than a million were still there when they actually arrived. Cities like Chartres where my wife’s family is from, like Troyes and like Évreux in Normandy, they just emptied.’
‘A picture of chaos, you see,’ said the professor. ‘Utter chaos. A quarter of the bloody population on the road, no civil order, tens of thousands of French refugees end up over here and for the Germans to slip one or two agents in among them ...well, it was the easiest thing in the world and Visser has indeed caught some of them. Apologies Jean-Louis, but you get my meaning. We are searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack.’
‘How do you propose we find her, Visser?’ asked the Frenchman.
At this point, both Visser and Edgar smiled and eased back in their chairs.
‘Oh we know how to find her all right.’ Edgar was smiling and removing a map from his jacket pocket.
‘You see,’ Visser added as Captain Edgar got up and spread the map out on a table near the door, ‘Arnold Vermeulen has been a good deal more helpful than I think we may have given him credit for.’
The following day began particularly early for Arnold Vermeulen. He had been alone in his cell at the Royal Victoria Patriotic School since his interrogation had ended the previous day. Apart from the guards checking on him twice an hour, sometimes more, he had been alone in his thoughts.
At first, he had felt a sense of utter relief: that the constant interrogations were over; that they had promised to spare his life in exchange for him agreeing to work for them and relief that his war was over. He had never meant it to go this far. He just wanted to show those Jews that they could not run things their way any more. In his worst nightmares, he could never have imagined that they would ask him to become an active spy for them. In England. It was a ridiculous notion. His health was not up to it. He had spent the past year waiting for a knock on the door.
The sense of relief had allowed him to have his first proper sleep since arriving here, but it had been a brief one. He woke up drenched in sweat and overwhelmed by terrible thoughts. What if it was not true? What if they had deceived him? Could it be a trick? He spent the next couple of hours reassuring himself that without Magpie, he was useless to them and he was the only person who could give them Magpie. He relaxed and even managed to eat all of the stew they brought him early in the evening, along with bread that didn’t taste like bread and a dry pudding. This time he fell into a truly deep sleep, which he remained in until the cell door burst open at five in the morning.
The small cell, with its pervading smell of new concrete, was filled with two guards, two other men wearing a different military uniform and the tall Englishman who had sat in on all of the interrogations. He spoke.
‘Get up, Vermeulen, we are moving you.’
The Belgian stood in the centre of the cell. Two of the guards had moved behind him. One of the men in the uniforms he had not seen before threw some clothes on the bed.
‘Get undressed and put those on.’
Vermeulen was dazed. He looked around the cell, smiling in the forlorn hope that one person in the cell would return his smile. Slowly, he started to remove his own clothes, which he had fallen asleep in and which were the ones he had been allowed to wear since his arrest and after they had examined them. He removed the cardigan that his mother had knitted for him a year before she died, the shirt and the trousers from which they had already removed the belt. He stood there in his underpants, vest and socks, shivering in fear and the cold of the early morning.